The pitchforks are tucked securely under our beds. The day is June 28, 2014, and the Mariners just completed a series win over the world champions. The series before that, they swept the hottest team in baseball. Their record is 43-37, and if the season ended today (yes, I know you’re tired of that phrase, too bad, I’m going to savor this), the Seattle Mariners would be preparing for a nine-inning game against the Angels for the right to continue onto the ALDS.
What all of this means: the Mariners are having debatably their most promising season in 10 years. Four years of unwatchable suck have floated away like a balloon, and here we are, nearly at the halfway point in the season, with real aspirations of reaching the postseason. This isn’t 2009, a team built on an unsteady foundation, ready to collapse at any moment. Pythagorean record, BaseRuns, you name your context-neutral statistic of choice: these Mariners are actually a little better than decent. And in these moments, it is especially important to remember that Howard Lincoln is still one of the absolute worst CEOs in professional sports, and will limit the potential of the Mariners as long as he is employed.
I know, I’m being a real bummer at the exact time when I ought to be the most excited. I’ve had enough misery following this team for 10 years; why should I actively seek out misery? Part of it, I think, is an intrinsic need to seek balance in any given situation. You know the cliché: never get too high, never get too low.
Another, more pressing reason: I can’t let go of the fact that this team isn’t built on the process that enables long-lasting success. I’m concerned all that will come of the next five years is one failed Wild Card run and four years of payroll-deadlocked misery.
And that all starts at the top with Howard Lincoln, who’s served as the team’s president and point person for the absentee Nintendo ownership for a very long time. He actually had some truly noteworthy accomplishments near the start of the decade. Lincoln is credited, in part, for ensuring the Mariners remained in Seattle (although Ken Griffey Jr. had just as much or more to do with that). He hired Pat Gillick, who oversaw the magical 2001 season. Since that year, though, it’s been shit sandwiches all the way down.
After Gillick retired, Lincoln (and his recently retired business partner, Chuck Armstrong) hired Bill Bavasi, whose father was Buzzie Bavasi, a legendary figure in the MLB world. Bavasi’s only GM experience was a six-year stint with the Angels in the mid-90s, a tenure that ended without a playoff appearance. His time with the Mariners was even more disastrous. A quick summary of his greatest hits: Richie Sexson for four years and way too much money, keeping Yuniesky Betancourt and Miguel Olivo around for far too long, signing Carlos Silva for four years, $48 million (even 14-year-old me knew that move was terrible). Besides an illusory 2007, the M’s finished in last place every year of Bavasi’s tenure.
I’d like to be fair to Lincoln, and concede it’s very difficult to parse, from my humble college student perspective, who bears the responsibility for a team’s continuous failures. Obviously, it’s never fully the owner’s responsibility, and it’s never fully the GM’s; on a case-by-case basis, the weight of responsibility shifts. However, I’d like to posit that in this particular arrangement, Lincoln ought to bear the burden of responsibility.
Example one: the Mariners’ sharp shift in philosophy following the 2010 season. If you’re an M’s fan, you know the timeline. Lincoln hires Jack Zduriencik, who immediately makes moves to shore up the defense, smartly exploiting a market inefficiency. The Mariners compete late into the season, everyone’s happy, Z trades for Cliff Lee in the offseason, and Sports Illustrated picks the M’s to contend for a World Series. 2010 comes, and everything blows the fuck up. They lose 101 games, and instead of seeing through the process that brought them success just a year prior, the Mariners spend the next three years acquiring ostensibly powerful hitters with no other discernible strengths — Miguel Olivo, Jesus Montero, Mike Morse, Raul Ibanez. You get the idea.
I really dislike conjecture, but it’s REALLY hard to see an individual shifting his baseball worldview so drastically in such a short period of time. It stands to reason, then, that this was a directive straight from the top. And this isn’t just a blind assumption; there is concrete, reported evidence that shows Lincoln, whose background is serving as a lawyer for Nintendo, was playing an active role in baseball operations.
In the depths of the offseason following another fourth-place Mariners finish, former Mariners beat writer Geoff Baker released a very damning report of the inner workings of the Seattle brain trust. Implicated heavily in the report was Lincoln. There were reports of Lincoln and Armstrong ripping into former manager Eric Wedge after a particularly poor performance, reports of Lincoln and Armstrong writing notes and passing them to Zduriencik during games, even reports of Lincoln instructing Wedge to make Felix throw batting practice. All of these practices, if true, are an embarrassingly excessive demonstration of overreach from management.
The most damning piece of that Baker piece was the accusation that Zduriencik was still hanging around because Lincoln did not want to admit to his failure. A poor decision compounded by an even worse one — it sums up the last 10 years of Howard Lincoln in a nutshell.
If the last 1,000 words hasn’t made it clear, at no point in the recent past has Lincoln demonstrated a capacity to effectively run a baseball team. Even this year’s team is the product of a flawed process. The offense is buoyed by $240 million dollar Robinson Cano, who could look like a sunken anchor as soon as next year. Most of the homegrown talent, save for Seager and (kind of) Zunino, has utterly failed. If not for an otherworldly season from Felix, and thank God for him, this would be a below-average team, again.
This is an institution not just fraught by instability, but defined by it. Howard Lincoln is the agent of chaos. The sooner he’s removed, the sooner we can begin to realistically dream about a real year-to-year contender. Until then, I’ll be watching anxiously, waiting for the house of cards to collapse. And I’m sure as hell not throwing away my pitchfork.